'Oldboy' Writer Mark Protosevich Knows You Didn't Want A Remake; Plus Development And Challenges

Though film fans are well-versed in Chan-wook Park's 2003 film Oldboy, most audiences have no idea what the film is. To 90% of people who go to the movies, it's nothing more than an ultra-violent, ten-year-old foreign language film with subtitles, if they even know that much about it. At least, that's what Filmdistrict is thinking will be the case when Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy opens November 22. They're hoping audiences will be as surprised and entertained as we were the first time we saw the original.

Still, everyone involved is well aware film fans can be vocal when reacting to remakes, and no one is a bigger champion of the original than screenwriter Mark Protosevich. The writer of the original Thor and I Am Legend considers himself a massive fan of the original film. And when he first heard about the remake, he was hesitant. Then Will Smith approached him about writing it for director Steven Spielberg. What fan would say "No" to that?

Below, read about Protosevich's dealings with those two superstars and his justifications for remaking one of the biggest cult classics of all time.

Tell us about the first time you saw Chan Wook Park's film. What were the circumstances?Mark Protosevich: A friend, another cinephile, film lover friend of mine, and I, we're both very devoted followers of Asian cinema. When I lived out here, we would head out to Garfield Park in Alhambra where the large Chinese communities are, and see a lot of the Hong Kong action movies. I remember seeing Peking Opera Blues and Chinese Ghost Story way back, because they were getting those films. And so we were actively trying to see them.

Hong Kong was still doing a lot of great stuff, but then all the good stuff on Korea started coming through. And a friend of mine said, you have to see Oldboy. So I think I was actually out here in L.A. and it was playing, so I went to see it at my friend's urging. And was blown away. I mean, I loved it. I love the original film till the day I die. I am a fan. I think it is a unique work of art and seeing it for the first time is one of the more memorable moviegoing experiences that I've had. Just being, I mean, when that ending comes up, you don't forget it. And also, I just think he has a style that is unlike any other filmmaker I've seen. I mean in terms of a visual sense, there's a sophisticated poetry for lack of a better word that's there. So, I think he's a terrific director. I think it's a terrific film.

Years ago I remember hearing Justin Lin was going to do a remake of Oldboy. And my reaction was "Oh really?" So I understand that. I completely do. And, I mean, there are certain films that I love that if I heard were going to be remade, I would probably have that zealous reaction of "No." But, then I think about other films. Two of all time favorite films are the same story. It's Wages of Fear and Sorcerer. It's the same thing, it's the same story. I love both. I'm happy that both exist. And, you know, and there are other examples of that. I love Seven Samurai and I love The Magnificent Seven. I love both versions. Howard Hawks' version of The Thing and John Carpenter's The Thing. I remember there being outrage over this, the new version of The Thing that came out a few years ago. And it was like "Oh, how dare they remake John Carpenter's The Thing." Well I don't think they even realize there was the Howard Hawks produced version.

But I get it. There's a purist part in all of us that reacts strongly to something we care about. Then oh  think you can do this now? But the one thing I really would say is there was one thing I read, and I try not to read much online commentary because I'm not a masochist, but there was one thing  somebody posted that a friend of mine sent me and it was like "Oh typical Hollywood, exploiting another film just to make money." And my reaction was "You show me someone who watches the original version of Oldboy and goes 'Wow, an English language version of this is gonna clean up! People will be lined up around the block! This is gonna be the next Transformers!'" You know if that was the motivation, there are much better options out there.

All I can do is speak from my perspective. I was initially approached about this project by Will Smith, because we worked together on I Am Legend. And Steven Spielberg was interested and they wanted to work together. And they were gonna do it and people were like "Oh what a weird combo." I actually went out and  Steven was very interested in doing a hard hitting. Keeping the ending, doing something gritty. I don't know if that ever got to Will. But, you know, the initial impulse was to do something. Then there was this long negotiating process and everything. And I wrote a 30 page treatment on spec on my own, because I was like "I have an opportunity here." I'm not thinking about the moral or ethical or philosophical "Do you remake this movie?" at this point because there's the possibility of Will Smith and Steven Spielberg doing this and you're being asked to participate. Do the best damn job you can. You're being given an opportunity here.

So that was before even you got hired to officially adapt it?

Yeah. I mean, it was unofficial. There was no deal in place at that point. And then almost a year later, the day I turned in the treatment, the whole thing fell apart. The whole thing fell apart. And during that time I really became invested in it. I really put my heart and soul into that treatment. And was, you know, it becomes more of an instinctive thing. You're just following your gut. In my mind, I'm being given a chance to here to do something provocative and challenging and dark and you don't get that that often.

And so it all fell apart, but the producer still wanted to make the movie. And I said, "I'm in." They couldn't pay me much up front and I didn't care and I said "If you like the script, if you like what I do, I wanna be a co-producer. I wanna be as involved as I can." I was on the set. So they were supportive of that. Spike [Lee] was supportive of that. I was on the set for most of the movie. And I think most everyone involved was really coming out at it from a place of passion and a creative challenge. And the opportunity to do something you don't get to do all that often. So, you know, so that was the motivation.

I guess everyone's parameters are a little are different. You can be so entirely devoted to a film that it almost becomes like a religious devotion. That the idea of remaking it or doing another version of it becomes blasphemous. But they say zealotry is a very dangerous thing. So my feeling is I hope people keep an open mind. And the other thing I definitely would say among movie lovers and people who love the original, I understand it, but most people I meet have not seen the movie. I think most people in this country probably have not seen it. And so my feeling is is  if this version prompts people to seek out the original? Great, score. That's fine. I think that would be a huge benefit. So we'll see what happens.

Again, by no means were we ever thinking we can do this better. That is ridiculous. What Spike and I often talked about was cover versions of songs. You've got the original song. Neil Young wrote "Like a Hurricane," but I really love this Roxy Music cover of "Like a Hurricane." Movies are, you know, there's a big difference there of course. A song's four minutes long and you can record it in a day. But I think what we were trying to do is, this story resonated with us. This character resonated. Let's try to do our version of this and see what happens.

Is there an intimidation factor when remaking something with such a devoted core audience?

I think I probably, wisely, didn't think about that too much. I don't mean that to sound arrogant. I mean that in a way that that could be creatively hindering. So, for me, it was about "This is gonna happen." I've actually talked to other writer friends about this. When you get approached about a remake sometimes it's like, and I suppose there's some arrogance and ego involved in it, but if you really love the original material, you kind of go "Geez, I better do this, because somebody else might not do it with the same level of affection or passion or integrity." Which, you know, yes, that is sort of ego driven. But it is part of what I thought. I'll try to respect the original as much as possible. I mean, there's nothing I can do to change that perception among the people who feel that way. There's nothing I can do. So you just proceed. I cared about what I was writing when I wrote that script.

Oldboy opens November 27.